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Reconciling Europe with its Citizens through Democracy and Rule of Law

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - RECONNECT (Reconciling Europe with its Citizens through Democracy and Rule of Law)

Reporting period: 2019-05-01 to 2020-08-31

RECONNECT is a multidisciplinary research project aimed at understanding and providing solutions to the recent challenges faced by the EU. With a focus on strengthening the EU’s legitimacy through democracy and the rule of law, RECONNECT seeks to build a new narrative for Europe, enabling the EU to become more attuned to the expectations of its citizens.

There is growing distrust towards EU institutions, which are frequently seen as unable or unwilling to respond to the concerns of EU citizens. This has created a growing gap between the Union and its citizens that has become the target of a new wave of populism, which challenges the EU’s authority and legitimacy. The Union is also confronted with the erosion of the foundations of democracy and the rule of law in some of its Member States. Within this context, RECONNECT’s point of departure is that European governance is (perceived as) legitimate if its core values of democracy and the rule of law embody justice and solidarity. This can be achieved only if EU governance adheres to coherent notions of democracy and the rule of law and ensures that both resonate with the preferences of EU citizens.

RECONNECT evaluates the coherence within and between democracy and the rule of law, how they are interpreted and applied across the Union, and the extent to which they resonate with EU citizens. In doing so, RECONNECT tests the assumption that the attainment of solidarity, entailing a transnational community founded upon mutual trust, and justice, based on the fairness of democratic processes and rule of law mechanisms, leads to a more legitimate EU. To address these questions:

1. RECONNECT provides a comprehensive diagnosis of the EU’s democratic and rule of law crises by analysing the deep tensions between the principles and practices of democracy and the rule of law, on the one hand, and citizens’ and civil society’s perceptions thereof, on the other. RECONNECT tests and develops this bottom-up approach in the context of four key policy areas: economic and fiscal governance, counter-terrorism, trade and migration.

2. RECONNECT develops policy recommendations and will propose Treaty changes in order to enhance EU legitimacy on the basis of a harmonious convergence among principles, practices and perceptions of democracy and the rule of law.

3. The ultimate goal of RECONNECT is to create a new narrative for EU governance which will seek to inspire and shape future debates, kindling a creative, innovative and inclusive process of reflection on the European project.
Since its launch in 2018, RECONNECT has successfully completed its first major research stage, examining a wide range of issues related to democracy and the rule of law in the EU and beyond: the changing global context; the content and historical trajectories of key concepts; the state of democratic systems in the EU; the impact of populist parties; citizens’ participation; national and supranational understandings of the rule of law; and best practices for upholding the rule of law. RECONNECT also examines challenges in several crucial areas, such as trade, migration, counter-terrorism and fiscal and macroeconomic policy, and actively participates in debates on the impact of COVID-19.

Three surveys were run since 2019. The University of Vienna collected data on citizens’ attitudes towards key policy areas before and after the 2019 European Elections with more than 21,000 respondents in seven EU Member States. The Catholic University of Lille explored how MEPs view and participate in EU decision-making in the legislative domain. The University of Münster measures citizens’ preferences towards the EU’s future institutional developments and changes among 12,000 respondents in six EU Member States. Concurrently, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology is finalizing a Representative Claims Analysis (RCA) of media discourse on democracy and the rule of law in the EU. It will contribute to a better understanding of existing perceptions of these concepts and the character of debates about them.

Research results have been presented in more than 35 academic articles, chapters and papers, over 340 non-academic publications, at more than 300 academic and stakeholder events, and close to 200 media appearances. RECONNECT research has been cited in academic writing, by the EPRS and think tanks, as well as by the Polish Supreme Court.

In addition, RECONNECT actively disseminates its research results online and organizes numerous events, including workshops, policy roundtables, high-level lectures (in cooperation with the Norwegian Embassy in Brussels), and webinars. A free open online course (MOOC) on democracy and the rule of law in Europe will be offered from November 2020 onwards on EdX.
Democracy and the rule of law – two of the core values of the EU – are in a state of transformation.

At the global level, the EU finds itself confronted with a new reality that is far less aligned with its values and constitutional order. External factors, such as deliberate disruptions by external actors, considerably influence intra-EU democratic governance conditions. Internally, the EU is facing a changing institutional balance in the relationship between EU and national legal systems, and the re-evaluation of national sovereignty highlights the fragility of the Union. Democratic principles are under pressure, with a sharp decline of the quality of public debate in several EU Member States, and overall decreasing electoral turnouts in national and European elections, resulting in a growing disconnect with EU citizens. Populist parties are generally seen as part of the problem, yet RECONNECT argues that rather than being inherently anti-pluralist, they may under certain conditions allow themselves to be accommodated in the democratic system.

The rule of law also remains under threat. RECONNECT shows that the current challenges are not – as often claimed – conceptual in nature, but rather practical. The rule of law is today among the few overarching constitutional principles that underpin all legal systems in Europe. There is now a broad legal consensus on the core meaning of this principle and its basic components. Its implementation, however, remains challenging.

Case studies highlight the practical challenges in different policy areas. With regard to the Union’s macroeconomic and fiscal policy, a growing disconnect with the political preferences in several EU Member States raises questions about the legitimacy of the Union’s principles. In EU trade policy, the inherent tension between transparency and secrecy of trade negotiations and the implementation of trade agreements is increasingly resolved in favour of transparency. Finally, RECONNECT has developed recommendations on how to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the rule of law and good governance.

Going forward, RECONNECT will develop the main dimensions of a new narrative for the European project which rethinks the interrelations between different spheres of governance of EU integration from the points of view of democracy, the rule of law and governance, aiming to reconnect the institutional dimension of the EU with the social concerns and claims of the citizens. RECONNECT will formulate policy recommendations and propose legal reforms to allow the EU to reconnect with its citizens by enhancing democratic and rule of law guarantees.